Thirty-five years ago, Bruce Robinson put
pen to paper and created a masterpiece from his down and out
experiences in a squalid Camden Town flat. Nobody then, not
even Bruce himself, could have predicted Withnail & I’s
phenomenal cult status.
based in Herefordshire, Bruce reminisces, "In those days
the London Borough of Camden attracted an altogether different
species of resident.
"It was around the winter of 1969/70 that I wrote Withnail.
It was a particularly vicious winter and here I was with no
heat, an Oxfam overcoat and a lightbulb. I used to swipe abandoned
vegetables off Camden Market. There’d always be apples
and turnips hanging about when they’d shut up on a Saturday.
It was fucking awful.
"In the Sixties one might have spotted a solitary alder,
scraping a living up among the chimney pots, but now Albert
Street is an advertisement for lush trees and classy door
knockers. Everyone’s got a lion’s head, and there’s
a lot of wisteria about in the pots hauled back from Carcassonne.
"I used to swipe abandoned vegetables
off Camden Market. There’d
always be apples and turnips hanging about when they’d
shut up on
a Saturday. It was fucking awful. "
"The pub we used to drink in, The Dublin, had gone.
The Communist greengrocer who refused to sell ‘foreign’
had gone. All the Cafs had acquired an e, and everyone in
Camden Town was drinking cappuccino."
It might have come as a bit of a shock, but no surprise
to Bruce that his former residence had been transformed into
an estate agent’s dream as it was "painted now
from top to toe, with a triple Banham’d front door in
deepest New Labour Blue.
"If you want a house in this street today," he
"it’s going to cost you more than a million. When
I lived here all those winters ago, it cost my landlord less
than £8, 000."
At the time, Bruce didn’t exactly fancy himself a
writer. Life, however, was imitating art and he found he had
some material at his disposal based on his relationship with
flatemate, Vivian MacKerrel.
"I didn’t sit there with a tape recorder and
a notepad writing down what Viv said," he explains, "I
just took his acidity, his pompous cowardice, and his very
pungent sense of humour, and wrote that character (Withnail).
The ‘I’ character is someone who’s always
constantly saving the day – which I did a lot with Vivian."
Their relationship, he says, is "permeated with decay,
and at the end the ‘I’ character leaves with some
hope but there’s no hope for the other bastard. There’s
none. There’s nowhere to go. He hasn’t got anyone
to play off. He’s going to spend his life drinking himself
to death, which is exactly what Viv did. He died in about
1990. It was throat cancer, the most terrible thing. They’d
sewn his throat up and he couldn’t swallow, so he had
to spit into this enormous cauldron. He had a pipe coming
out of his stomach which he was fed through, and he was pouring
neat Scotch straight into it."
By contrast, the inspiration for the actual name Withnail
came from someone with a less caustic temperament. "He
had a name very similar to Withnail. He was an upper-class
n’er do well and he had an Aston Martin. Total alcoholic.
The last time I heard of him he got arseholed and backed his
Aston out of a pub car park straight into the side of a police
car. I was eight, and I thought, ‘This guy’s extraordinary!’"
he enthuses. "When I was coming to write Withnail, this
name came up in my head. Because I can’t spell, I spelled
it Withnail, which is a similar but more appropriate name."
"He had a pipe coming out of his stomach
which he was fed through,
and he was pouring neat Scotch straight into it."
In 1987, this script went into production - with Bruce in
the director’s chair for the first time - and the experience
was, in short, a bit of a nightmare.
of all, casting took longer than expected. Paul McGann was
hired and fired twice. "He would not lose that Scouse
accent. I kept saying to him, ‘You’ve got to dump
it, Paul. You’re meant to be a lower-middle-class boy
who’s gone to drama school, and you can’t speak
like that.’ I got rid of him then reinstated him because
he promised me he’d get rid of it, which he did."
Richard E. Grant was (apparently) too large for the role.
Bruce recounts, "He swears that he was never fat, but
I’ve got the pictures. When he came along I said, ‘Half
of you has got to go.’ He lost all this weight and he’s
never put it on again. Richard’s a vicious old tart,
and he obviously had the wherewithal to play Withnail other
wise he wouldn’t have done it like he did."
Then there was the first day of filming. Denis O’Brien,
one of the movie’s producers, nearly shut the operation
down. Denis had previously worked with the Monty Python crew
and was of the opinion that "all comedy should be brightly
lit."Creative differences were eventually subdued by
Ray Cooper (Managing Director of HandMade Films) and in the
end Denis was more than pleased with the results.
Avid fans of the film will know that the other actors up
for the role of Withnail include Daniel Day-Lewis ("He
didn’t so much turn it down as time passed and by then
he wasn’t available."), Bill Nighy ("He gave
a very good account of himself in the auditions, but that
was in Bill’s drinking days and I thought that one drunk
on the set was going to be enough.") and Kenneth Branagh
("He’s an excellent actor, Branagh, and he could
have played Withnail, but it would have been a podgy Withnail.
I don’t mean physically, but Ken’s very mannered
and I don’t think he’d have had that splenetic
depth that Richard’s got.")
asked about the film’s long lasting appeal, an older
and wiser Bruce Robinson muses, "What I think it does
do is touch that moment that we’ve all had where we’re
all broke, all starving, all aspiring and all knowing that
it might not work in our lives. For one of them it does not
definitely and for one of them it might." He adds, "I
really think audiences love good dialogue. Brilliant photography
costs a lot more than crap photography, whereas good dialogue
doesn’t cost any more than bad dialogue, so even a cheap
film can have great dialogue in it."
"Smoking In Bed: Conversations with Bruce Robinson"
edited by Alistair Owen is priced at £7.99 (Bloomsbury
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